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Why More Parents Are Choosing Cohabitation Over Marriage

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Move over, divorce. Unmarried mom and dad + kids = the new formula for today’s American family. The percentage of first births to women living with a male partner jumped from 12 percent in 2002 to 22 percent in 2010, according to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Last year, research out of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia found that kids today are twice as likely to have unmarried parents living together than divorced ones. “Divorce used to be the biggest issue facing kids, when in fact, having cohabiting parents is the more common scenario,” says W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project.

In our own informal poll of unmarried Parenting readers, money--or lack thereof--was cited as the main reason why they haven’t gotten hitched, despite having kids. (One respondent put it this way: “We chose a mortgage over a reception.”) Others said that in a society where marriage is so devalued, they see no point in getting hitched in the first place. “We have an 11-month-old son, and we are so happy it should be illegal,” said another respondent. “If and when [we decide to get married], absolutely nothing would change. And I’m a wedding planner!”

Plus, cohabiting isn’t as much of a taboo as it was 40 years ago. Look no further than the pages of any celebrity weekly for proof: from Angelina and Brad (OK, fine, so they’re finally engaged) to Liev Schreiber and Naomi Watts to Kourtney Kardashian and Scott Disick, living together with kids is starting to seems downright traditional.

Okay, so more families are choosing to live ring-free. Is this a good thing? Common sense tells us that a happily unmarried parental unit is certainly better than an unhappily married one, but research says that cohabitation is much less stable than marriage. The National Marriage Project report found two-thirds of kids will see their cohabitating parents break up by age 12, while only one-quarter of married-before-children parents will divorce. “Cohabiting parents tend to be more ambivalent, which can lead to instability in the relationship,” says Margaret Owen, Ph.D., director of the Center for Children and Families at the University of Texas, Dallas. “Perhaps this ambivalence is a factor in their decision to live together rather than get married in the first place.”

Realistically, marriage is not always the most attractive option. “We live in a low-commitment culture that’s focused on instant gratification,” says Wilcox.” He likens marriage to the effort of maintaining a healthy diet. “Of course, your health is going to improve over the long-term, but in the moment, that salad may be less appealing than a stop at the McDonald’s drive-thru.”

But Wilcox does concede that “any relationship built on love and respect will thrive. And while the odds may be stacked more in favor of marriage, plenty of cohabitating couples live happily ever after without tying the knot.” Or should we say, “tying the not”?

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